All I knew was that American Dippers ate aquatic insects.
Neither flashy nor flamboyant, unlike the waxwings you met recently, dippers’ charisma derives less from their looks (though they are by no means unattractive), but rather from their behavior and—not to forget—from their mellifluous vocalizations.
One of five global species of dippers, the range of American Dippers (Cinclus mexicanus) is limited to western North and Central America, where they live and breed along clear and fast-flowing mountain streams. As high-altitude creeks freeze in the wintertime, the birds move to lower elevation waterways, such as Fountain Creek in Colorado Springs, where I regularly see them between November and March.
Measuring about 7.5 inches in length and sporting mostly gray and brown feathers, dippers aren’t conspicuous. One might be rewarded with a sighting by taking a little time to inspect rocks or logs in or along the edge of a stream for a roundish bird with a short, raised tail and a tendency to perform repeated knee bends and to bob its tail. Or one sees its hind portion protrude while the head is dipped below the water’s surface. One might also hear a burbling song which is evocative of the watery world it inhabits. It’s worth your time to follow this link to some voice recordings.
Uniquely among songbirds, dippers walk, swim, and dive underwater in order to capture their food. Nasal flaps prevent water from entering their nostrils and eye adaptations enable them to see while submerged. I had long ago learned that their diet consisted of aquatic insects and neither had observed anything to the contrary, nor had reason to question their main menu choice.
…until I came across this dipper last December and saw something sizeable dangle from its beak. I knew instantly that this was no insect, aquatic or otherwise.
As I subsequently discovered on Cornell’s All About Birds, “The American Dipper eats mostly aquatic insects and insect larvae but will occasionally take other invertebrates, as well as small fish or fish eggs.”
While I’m always enthralled by encounters with North America’s only aquatic songbird, this most recent one taught me novel information about a remarkable creature which only served to deepen my appreciation for the charismatic American Dipper.